I’ve been moping around this last week complaining about not winning the lottery when it was at its record high a couple of months ago. But, here is a statistic you’ve probably heard before: one year after winning the lottery and one year after becoming a paraplegic, these two different people will be equally happy - with a slight edge to the paraplegic.
According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, if it happened three months ago, with few exceptions, a major traumatic incident will have no effect on your happiness.
This is because happiness is a synthetic creation of your frontal lobe. We have a “psychological immune system” that helps us change our view of the world so that we can live in it.
“Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind,” says Gilbert.
That means if you are bummed out because you didn’t get a promotion or you just went through a tough break-up, in a few days you will find you are just as happy as you would have been if you had gotten that job or hadn’t gone through that break-up.
It’s not universal, some people are better at creating synthetic happiness than others, but it is there in all of us. And, it’s not any worse than the happiness you’d feel if everything went your way.
Some outcomes are better than others, and Gilbert doesn’t disagree with that notion. Losing an arm isn’t as desirable an outcome as winning a free trip to the Bahamas – and it’s shouldn’t be. But, when we don’t get the thing we desire most, humans have this amazing ability to find happiness in what we have.
So, although I don’t have much financially – and winning the lottery may have made my life easier – I’m not any less happy than I would have otherwise been.
Oh, and in case you were wondering how Gilbert feels about folks who play the lottery, here is a fun quote:
“Forgive me, for those of you who play the lottery — but economists, at least among themselves, refer to the lottery as a stupidity tax, because the odds of getting any payoff by investing your money in a lottery ticket are approximately equivalent to flushing the money directly down the toilet.”
For more on synthetic happiness take a look at Dan Gilbert’s TED talk online.